Local Government Services at a Standstill
A strike by over 200,000 local government staff in Scotland on Tuesday 28th March, closed schools, children's nurseries, libraries, leisure centres and other public buildings across the country. The industrial action, the biggest since the General Strike of 1926, was part of a UK-wide campaign. Routine services like home helps and refuse collection did not go ahead - and in many cases the bins and recycling boxes were still on the pavements at the end of the week as staff failed to catch up. Glasgow subway was closed and bus services in Edinburgh were curtailed as Lothian Regional Transport is operated by the city council. Social work services were hit, with only "life and limb" emergency cover being provided. One good result was that tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges were suspended for the day as there was nobody to collect the money. Council-run car parks were also free, for the same reason. The strike was caused by the government imposing changes to the pension rights of local government staff, which would mean them working longer to obtain their retirement pension. In Scotland, the Scottish Executive cited European Union rules and regulations "requiring" the change - while still allowing teachers, doctors and nurses and many other government employees to retire on a final salary related pension at 60. Further industrial action is planned for the end of April. However, after the one-day strike, there were suggestions in the press that the Executive were seeking an "exemption" from the European Union.
The illustration shows Edinburgh City Chambers (roughly, the City Hall).
Last Gasp Passes Peacefully
TV reporters and media hacks searched in vain to find smokers breaking the ban on smoking in any pubs, hotels, clubs or other public places all over the country. Official "smoking compliance officers" were also on patrol but although they had one or two complaints, they failed to substantiate any of them. By the end of the week, they had come across a few instances of the new law being flouted, but with the smoker immediately complying. In one case, it was foreign tourist who hadn't heard about the new requirements.
Scottish Parliament's Debating Chamber to Reopen in May
The debating chamber in the Scottish Parliament had to close at the beginning of March. One of the 12 foot long, heavy oak beams holding up the roof, had swung down from its mounting and was left hanging suspended at one end. Since then, the Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) have had to use temporary accommodation, while engineers worked out why the beam had left its mounting (shoddy workmanship is the most likely cause) and decided what to do about it. Now they have confirmed that the rest of the roof is stable and that the broken beam and the other 15 beams in the roof can be held by temporary straps until further work can be carried out during the summer recess. So MSPs will be allowed back into the chamber in the middle of May.
Army Regiments Merger Marches Forward
Despite a forceful campaign to stop it, a single Scottish Army regiment was created this week, with the merger of the historic regiments of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, the Black Watch, The Highlanders and The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to form four battalions of the new Royal Regiment of Scotland (RRS). Later this year the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Royal Scots will merge to form another battalion of the RRS. The Ministry of Defence claims that "restructuring will ensure 21st Century military commitments can be met." Opponents argue that it will weaken recruitment as the old local geographic base of the Scottish regiments will be lost and the long, proud, traditions of the former regiments will no longer serve to motivate and inspire the soldiers of today and tomorrow. Ceremonies to mark the creation of the new regiment were held in Edinburgh, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Cyprus
Aberdeen Newspapers Sold
Aberdeen's major newspapers - the Press and Journal and the Evening Express - are to be taken over by rival publishers DC Thomson, based in Dundee for £132 million . DC Thomson's titles include The Courier and Sunday Post newspapers but the company is better known for its long-running "Beano" and "Dandy" children's comics. The Press and Journal, which can trace its history back to 1747, serves mainly the north and north-east of Scotland. DC Thomson management stressed: "The content and editorial policy of The Press and Journal and the Evening Express will continue to be set by the people who know its area best, and they are based in Aberdeen." However, in the highly competitive newspaper business, it would be surprising if the new owners (who have a reputation for keeping down costs) did not rationalise some of the work of the two locations.
Public Enquiry for 135-Mile Powerline Plans?
In January 2004, Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) announced a plan to have a new line of overhead power lines running from Beauly, north of Inverness, across the Highlands (including part of the Cairn Gorm National Park) to Denny, near Stirling. Huge 165ft pylons will replace the present 100ft high ones to allow the transmission of power from the many wind-farms being planned for northern Scotland. When the planning application was lodged in October 2005, it ran to 1.2 million words (twice the length of "War and Peace"). Highland Council has received over 8,000 letters objecting to the plans. Although a decision on the application will be taken initially by a special committee of councillors, their planning director this week said that he was recommending rejection of the plan. He accepts the need for the upgrade, but it would significantly affect the amenity of four specific lengths of the 135-mile route - Beauly-Eskadale and Cannich-Guisachan, in Inverness-shire, and River Spey-Feagour Wood and an area west of the A889 and east of the A9 in Badenoch and Strathspey. If the council rejects the application, it will then automatically trigger a full public enquiry.
Portrait Gallery No Oil Painting
The new director general of the National Galleries of Scotland has said that one of his priorities is to refurbish the "shabby" and antiquated National Portrait Gallery. Staff there have been working for some time on a £16 million makeover, but they had to withdraw the bid for Heritage Lottery funding as they had not answered questions on how they planned to broaden the audience appeal. John Leighton took over from Sir Timothy Clifford only a few weeks ago. But already he is making his mark, with a greater focus on Scottish art and history, rather than "just" the international art collection. The Scottish National Galleries have their local art collections languishing in basement displays, almost as an afterthought. The new director says that he is determined to reverse this attitude and "turn the apology into a resounding cheer." Sir Timothy had regarded the Scottish art as "second string".
The illustration shows part of the frieze in the entrance hall of the National Portrait Gallery.
Insurance Group Creates 450 Jobs
Ace Group, a global insurance giant, has announced that it is to centralise its UK clerical and administration division, with 450 jobs, in the new international financial services district in the Broomielaw, Glasgow. Servicing and processing is currently being carried out at a number of locations in England and Ireland. Some of these staff may relocate to Glasgow, so until that has been resolved, the number of vacancies in the new operation in Glasgow will not be known.
Just the Ticket
Over one million Scots who are aged 60 or over, or who are disabled, became eligible for free bus travel anywhere in Scotland from 1 April (no, this is not an April Fool's Day joke). Around 80% of them already have concession cards which are valid in their local area, but the new scheme will allow them to travel anywhere in Scotland at any time. The cost to the taxpayer will be around £160 million a year. For more information, see http://infoscotland.com/seemore.
Billionaire Tees Up New Golf Course
Donald Trump confirmed this week his plans to create a new world class golfing centre in Aberdeenshire, close to the North Sea coast between Balmedie and Ellon. It will include two championship courses, a hotel and holiday complex. The billionaire says he had never seen such an unspoilt and dramatic sea side landscape. His company, Trump International, had been looking in various European locations, but his personal preference had always been Scotland - he is 50% Scottish as his mother, Mary MacLeod, came from Tong, near Stornoway. The developers hope the planned course will one day host the sport's biggest competitions, including the Open. Jack McConnell, the Scottish First Minister, welcomed the news, as did the area director for VisitScotland, though Scottish National Heritage voiced concerns about the "sensitivities of the area." But a few days after the announcement, came the sting in the tail - the £300 million development will not go ahead if a plan for a nearby off-shore wind farm gets approval or if the project gets bogged down in planning delays. That last requirement probably sounded the end of the project before it has even started.
Poles Vault into Capital
Since May 1 2004, workers in Poland and other East European countries have been free to take up employment anywhere in the European Union. Scotland is particularly keen to attract those with skills to boost its declining population and the "Fresh Talent" initiative has attracted workers to fill vacancies in areas ranging from dentistry to bus drivers and hospitals. With high unemployment in Poland, even amongst university graduates, there has been a significant number coming from there, resulting in a growth in budget airline routes - and specialist bars and clubs catering for the new residents. It is estimated that there has been a 400% rise in the number of Poles living in Edinburgh. The consul general for Poland in Scotland says that there are 20,000 of his countrymen registered in Scotland - but the true number is probably around 40,000 to 45,000, with half of them in Edinburgh. 80% of these Poles are under 35 years old and 40% are under 25; nearly 40% are university educated. According to UK government statistics, there are 205,000 Poles officially registered in Britain, though the real number is undoubtedly higher.
Wind Power Blows Away Target
A report by the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) claims that 6,000 megawatts of wind power capacity will have been installed in the UK by 2010, generating almost 5 per cent of UK electricity supply - much of it located at wind farms in Scotland. That figure is said to be 50% more than previously predicted - despite the lengthy planning delays which usually occur due to protests and enquiries, with final decisions being made in Edinburgh by the Scottish Executive. Present wind farms and plans which have gained final approval amount to a total of 3,000MW confirmed for delivery by 2010. New research identifies a further 3,000MW that is forecast to be approved and built by 2010
Scotland's IQ Lags Europe
A professor at the University of Ulster has claimed that Scotland is the least intelligent part of the UK and performs poorly on average IQ when compared to most of Europe. Prof Richard Lynn says the Scots average IQ of 97 is well below the England and Wales average of 100.5. London and the south-east of England scored top in the UK, with an average IQ of 102. The academic says he is not surprised - and blames the tradition over the centuries of many brighter Scots moving to England, or overseas, to advance their careers, creating a major brain drain. He points to other locations where a similar situation has arisen - the French island of Corsica has a lower IQ than Paris, for a similar reason. Scotland is 16th out of 23 European nations, with eastern Europe filling most of the lower places. The highest IQ levels were found in Germany and Holland, followed by Poland. The UK as a whole comes 8th, behind Sweden, Italy, Austria and Switzerland.
Controversy Over Marine and Coastal National Park
While campaigners are pushing the case for their part of the coast to be designated the first marine and coastal national park in Scotland, another group has been formed to fight against such proposals for the west Highlands. They argue that such a development would not benefit local people and would impose intolerable restrictions on economic activity, including the fishing industry. Scottish National Heritage wants to see a park established next year and locations including Argyll, Lochaber and Skye, the north-west Highland coast, the Western Isles, Shetland and the Solway, Clyde and Moray firths are all in the running.
QE2 Returning to Clyde for 40th Birthday party
The luxury liner Queen Elizabeth II (usually referred to as QE2) was launched from the John Brown shipyard on the river Clyde in Glasgow on 20 September 1967. The 70,000-ton QE2 was the last passenger liner to be built on the Clyde. The owners, Cunard, announced this week that the ship is to make a return visit to the Clyde next year - on the exact anniversary of her launch. The famous ship will berth at Greenock as part of a round-Britain tour, which will include South Queensferry, near Edinburgh. Since her launch, the liner has sailed almost 5.5 million nautical miles and carried 2.1 million passengers.
Ferry Service Making Waves
Ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne (Calmac) has been accused (not for the first time) of "wrecking the traditional way of life" of the Western Isles. Until now, there have been no ferry service on Sundays to Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, where the Sabbath is still strictly observed by many residents. But now Calmac is planning to run a ferry on Sundays between South Harris and North Uist. The full Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) have expressed opposition to the plan - but are powerless to stop it. In 2003, there was opposition to the introduction of air services to Stornoway on a Sunday, although many on the island welcomed the move. Calmac say that they are responding to a request from Uist councillors which put forward a case that for social, economic and other reasons such as hospital visits and school activities, a seven-day service would be beneficial for the Sound of Harris.
Politician Breaks a Pledge
There's nothing new in a politician breaking a promise, but in this case he can be forgiven, as it's in a good cause. Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party always maintained that he would not wear a kilt until the day of Scotland's independence. In the past, he has worn tartan trews, but has not worn a kilt since childhood. But he is attending Tartan Week in New York and he is to wear a kilt in the new Robert Burns tartan. The politician had advocated Robert Burns in a recent "Scot of the Millennium" poll and said he could think of no better tartan to wear for the "Dressed to Kilt" event in New York. The Scottish First Minister, Jack McConnell is also attending, two years after he turned up for the show in a now infamous pin-stripe kilt.
Burns Supper Worth the Wait
The "season" for Burns Suppers is usually at its height around the anniversary of the bard's birthday on 25 January. With the demand for after-dinner speakers and entertainers, however, the dates when organisation hold their own events can be some weeks on either side of that date. But the village of Invergarry in Lochaber had what was probably the last Burns Supper of this year - on 24 March. It's not that they couldn't find a haggis or enough malt whisky - they didn't have anywhere to hold the event. Their village hall collapsed in August 2003 and the villagers had to mount a major fund-raising programme to build a replacement. The new building should have been finished in time for their Burns Supper on 25 January. But like many such projects (the Scottish Parliament inevitably springs to mind) the hall was not completed in time. So the locals decide just to "postpone" their celebration. So after the opening ceremony last Friday, the Burns Supper and a dance went on into the evening - and into Saturday morning.
Weather in Scotland This Week
After the coldest March in Scotland for 20 years, at last temperatures rose this week to nearer the normal levels for this time of year. For much of the early part of the week most places were within the range 10/12C (50/54F) with Aberdeen and Edinburgh reaching 14C (57F) on Sunday. But apart from Wednesdays, when the sun shone, particularly in the east, there was a lot of cloud and rain. Glasgow recorded over 1.5 inches of rain in the three days from Sunday to Tuesday, with Sunday particularly wet. Maximum daytime temperatures dipped a bit on Thursday and Friday to 6/8C (43/46F).
The illustration above is of Gleneagles golf course in Perthshire.
This Week's Colour Supplement
This week's online photographs taken in Scotland to show the current season and its flora and fauna include Spring daffodils, King Robert the Bruce statue, Scottish Saltire flag, Gleneagles Hotel, Wallace Monument and the Ochil Hills. See this week's Colour Supplement.